Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1500
Osborne, John 1929–
Osborne, an award-winning British playwright, is the author of Look Back in Anger, as well as Luther, Inadmissible Evidence, and The Entertainer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)
[Osborne's] plays are essentially emotional and dramatic statements that apply far beyond the realm of a particular time and place. Osborne's first play to be produced, Look Back in Anger …, is less a play about the rebellion of the educated young man of the lower classes against current society than a play about what it means to give and receive love….
Osborne's The Entertainer (1957) is also more a dramatic and emotional statement than an analysis of the decline of the English music-hall tradition…. The whole play is a fabric of … emotional destructions: Archie and his wife, Archie and his father, the father and Archie's wife. Certainly, all these destructions are made more meaningful and more poignant within the terms of a dissolving sociological entity. But the emotional destructions themselves form the center of a play with ramifications far beyond the traditions of music-hall comedy or of old England.
James Gindin, in his Postwar British Fiction: New Accents and Attitudes (originally published by the University of California Press; reprinted by permission of The Regents of the University of California), University of California Press, 1962, pp. 51-3.
Look Back in Anger was a rallying point. It came to represent the dissatisfaction with society reflected in the novels of such young writers as John Wain, Kingsley Amis, and John Braine. Jimmy Porter, its rancorous protagonist, was thought to symbolize the fury of the young postwar generation that felt itself betrayed, sold out, and irrevocably ruined by its elders. The older generation had made a thorough mess of things, and there was nothing the new generation could do except withdraw….
John Osborne must have been the most surprised man in England when he suddenly found himself placed at the head of the angry-young-man movement. He had written a carefully and intelligently worked out dramatic study of a psychotic marriage relationship and was hailed instead as the creator of a revolutionary literary movement. Certainly Jimmy Porter makes a good many cutting remarks about contemporary society, but he only makes them as a result of his own peculiar personality problems. There is absolutely no indication in the play that Osborne ever intended Jimmy's remarks to be taken as a general condemnation of society….
Look Back in Anger was strenuously fiddled up into an epoch-making play by the London critics. It is nothing of the sort; but, on the other hand, it is by no means a worthless play either. Osborne has created an excellent, minutely accurate dissection of a perverse marriage in the style of Strindberg. Look Back in Anger irresistibly recalls the Swedish author's Dance of Death….
By the time Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer were produced, Osborne had been hailed as the angry young man so much that he had actually become one. If there is a prototype of the angry-young-man play, The World of Paul Slickey is it. Written as a musical, it failed when first produced. And no wonder. There is so much direct criticism of society (castigation would perhaps be a better word) in it that just about everyone must have been made uncomfortable. When criticizing social institutions on the stage it is advisable to use the gentle touch if one wishes to have a successful show. People will accept the offhand slaps of a witty mind because if they can laugh at the object of the satire they can feel superior to it: nobody consciously identifies himself with ridiculousness. But even if they will allow themselves to be slapped under the illusion that someone else is being slapped, they will not allow themselves to be openly and directly attacked…. The World of Paul Slickey is pure spit and vomit thrown directly into the teeth of the audience. Commercially it has been Osborne's least successful play; artistically it is his best. Inability to compromise may be disastrous from a diplomatic viewpoint, but art is not diplomacy: it is truth….
In A Subject of Scandal and Concern (1960) and Luther (1961), Osborne continues to be the angry young man, but he seems to have absorbed the lesson of The World of Paul Slickey. In these two plays Osborne attacks the establishment indirectly instead of leaving his glove in its face. Both plays concern historical characters, and Osborne leaves the implication very clear for us that "it could happen again."…
It is doubtful that anything significant can be expected from John Osborne after Plays for England. He has become a victim of his own critical success. Left alone, he might have developed into a modestly talented writer of competently constructed, slightly acidulous hack plays. The strong streak of trite sentimentality which marred Look Back in Anger would undoubtedly have taken over had Osborne not been promoted into the figurehead of a new "movement," and he would have peacefully joined the ranks of the television and provincial repertory company playwrights. Osborne is now committed to being angry; but he got all his anger off his chest in The World of Paul Slickey. In Luther he tackled a subject far beyond his intellectual powers. The result was ludicrous rather than enlightening. In Plays for England he is preaching—and making no more sense than if he were fulminating from a real pulpit.
George Wellwarth, "John Osborne: 'Angry Young Man'?" in his The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama (reprinted by permission of New York University Press from The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama by George Wellwarth; copyright © 1964 by New York University), New York University Press, 1964, pp. 222-34.
[John] Osborne is one of the foremost writers of monologues for the modern theatre; though he can compose a passage for several voices, give him that single instrument, the angry or whining human voice, and he will wrest from it all kinds of double stops: comic plangencies, torrential trivialities, staccato fusillades of all-consuming spite, and whimpering cadenzas of self-pity and self-hate….
As usual with Osborne, there are two deficiencies [in Inadmissible Evidence]: lack of sufficient form and lack of wholly convincing motivation. It is as though neurosis were its own begetter, its own sustenance, and its own final cause; it is not to be questioned any more than arrested, its reasons and consequences the unshakable données of the protagonist's life.
John Simon, in Hudson Review, Spring, 1966, pp. 112-13.
It was possible after Time Present and Hotel in Amsterdam, to feel that Osborne's talent had turned destructively in upon itself. In West of Suez it has flowered again, and looks out to wider horizons than in any previous work, except perhaps Luther. Nothing would be easier than to list the play's oddities and shortcomings: its opening with a twenty-minute duologue tenuously attached to what follows, or the puzzling way in which one of the two characters in it virtually disappears until he returns to speak the last line, and the fact that of the whole cast of nineteen at least half have only the briefest opportunities to make their mark within the texture of the play. None of this matters much, because in practice the points are made, the range of resonances stretches mind and emotions alike, up to the undeniably too-little-prepared-for ending….
Though Look Back in Anger was a much more personal play, West of Suez is in a straight line of development from it, by way of, in particular, The Entertainer and Inadmissible Evidence. Western civilization, they all seem to say, is an old house full of fine things—in terms of human values, not Jamesian objets d'art—but decaying.
Look Back in Anger is filled with impotent pain at the failings which have imperilled these fine things; West of Suez marks a kind of resignation, stirred to outrage only by the blind forces of destruction which aim to destroy all.
J. W. Lambert, in Drama, Winter, 1971, pp. 14-16.
John Osborne is probably the most emotionally explosive writer since the war…. He is full of opposites within himself: aggressive and conserving, careless and meticulous, foreshadowing the future, yet also curiously old-fashioned. At the point of writing he seems genuinely unconscious of this, is wonderfully free, if you like, for them to war in the imagination and then on the stage—not in dialogue, but in speeches. Reason plays no part, in that if the pattern of existence is unbearable for a main character, a Jimmy Porter or Maitland, they must make it so for others, not from spite, as a Pinter character would, but in a way that is instinctively the only way for them at the time, imposing their pattern of satisfaction. The talk is surface rationalising, justification, attack. The energy springs not from any special concern for the world or for people, but from the daemon of self, inextricably united with daemon of writer.
Marie Peel, "Violence in Literature," in Books and Bookmen, February, 1972, pp. 20-4.